Long adored by connoisseurs of Off Broadway theater, Deirdre O’Connell is one of the New York stage’s most valuable players. In the past dozen years, she has worked her magic in such shows as Circle Mirror Transformation, In the Wake and Fulfillment Center, for which Time Out’s critic called her “one of our theatrical nonpareils, both living fairy tale and salt of the earth.” But her astonishing 2020 performance in Lucas Hnath’s Dana H.—in which she lip-synched for 75 straight minutes to an audio recording of Hnath’s mother, Dana Higginbotham, recounting her abduction by a white-supremacist gang member more than 20 years ago—brought O’Connell a new degree of acclaim, including a Special Citation from the New York Drama Critics’ Circle for career excellence. Now Dana H. is moving to Broadway, where it will run in rep with another work of documentary theater, Is This A Room. We connected with the actor on a video call to discuss the challenges of the period behind us and the journey ahead.
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Hello! There you are.
Oh, I get to see you! That’s good.
I don't know if that's an advantage or not!
Well, I don't mind seeing people. I don't like being seen by them, you see. Which seems—you know, why would you be an actor if that was your deal? I'm in a struggle with it! It is a struggle to the death. [Laughs.]
You can turn off the video if you like. I won’t be offended.
That's okay. I'll leave it on. What the heck. Balls to the wall here. Or you can just use André De Shields’s interview and put my picture on it and just say that I said all that. Holy shite! What a beautiful interview! God. I felt like I'm going to keep that one forever and just read it every six months, right? It was so inspiring and just took it to this whole other level.
That’s the nice thing about having the space for these longer interviews. You don’t have to fill it, but you can feel free to fill it if you want to.
It kind of feels ridiculous to do anything but try to fill it, right? That's how it feels to go back to theater, too.
I’ve found myself returning to Dana H. in my head many times this year, and to your performance in it. How do you do that? Have you ever done anything like it, in terms of the rigors of its technical demands?
No, I've never done anything like it. And when Lucas and [director Les Waters] proposed it to me, I didn't know whether I would like doing it, and there was no way to find out. So it was kind of scary, just stepping into the unknown. I thought it might feel very claustrophobic. I was signing up to do it for a long time, because there were three theaters that were going to do it, and I didn’t know if it was going to make me feel like a crazy astronaut who’s been strapped into a very lonely capsule—which it does feel like, there's no question. [Laughs.] But there's also a real pleasure in the amount of surrender that it requires to do it. I think I like things that are really rigorous and strange and hard because I like being kind of undone by the tasks—so that I feel less self-conscious, you know. It's all a trick of how to feel more available and in the moment. So this trick is pretty effective because I can't think about anything else. I can't think one second ahead of it or regret the error that I made one second ago, ‘cause if I do I'm just screwed. This train is going, and I have to stay with the train.
How long did it take to actually get the text down? I'm terrible at memorizing lines whenever I have to. I panic about it.
Yeah. It’s no fun, right? People ask, How do you memorize all those lines? You just sit down and learn them, that’s how. They’re no fun. They're just the worst part of the job. And this is, like, double bad! The rigor of learning it was mind-bending and horrible. I had this madness going on with it, coming at it from one way for a few days and another way for a few days. I think it took three months or so. It was lengthy. I didn't know that I'd be able to actually learn it; I didn't have this enormous confidence that I could pull it off until finally it started to pull together and I started to feel the rhythm of it. But it is really particularly weird.
You have earbuds feeding Dana Higginbotham's voice to you the whole time. What is that experience like?
One thing that's interesting is that when you're in the theater and you listen to it without any earbuds in it's very echo-y, because the sound design is so precise that each speaker is different, by milliseconds, from every other speaker in the theater. You have to have very precise earbuds in, because you just don't have a precise point to aim at unless you're hearing it exactly. And all those things were unknown to us—we couldn't know them until we were in the theater.
How have you been getting back into relearning it?
I started about a month and a half ago. I do it once a day, if not twice, and I go back over sections of it all over again and take a bike ride and listen to it. And then I make myself sit and listen to it and do it, you know? I just come at it. And I don't know what it will be like this time. Steve Cuiffo was my lip-sync coach, because he's done lip-synching before and he kind of trains the Wooster Group when they have to do it—he's the lip-sync guy. When I was first learning how to do it, one of the things that he said to me was, “You'll be really amazed at how different it sounds to you every time.” And I was like, That's not possible: It's an hour and 14 minutes long, and it's exactly the same every time. But it's true! It feels like some days she's up, some days she's down. Some days she's really angry. Some days she feels very available to the audience, sometimes she feels very shut down and defended. And I can never know which it's going to be. It's not like I can make a decision. I just get on this train and it actually sounds different. He warned me that that would happen. And maybe there are lip-sync artists that will be like, “Oh yeah, that happens when I do Marlene! It's different every time!” But you just can't believe how different it feels and sounds.
Does it feel different to you in a more general sense this time around, in light of the time that’s gone by since the last time you performed it?
I do feel like I've been thinking a lot about what's different now than what was going on for me and for all of us then—it's just such a different world. It couldn't feel stranger to be going back into the same story. But on the other hand, I feel like there were some ways maybe that it was prescient. There's an isolation that the piece is about that has become horribly familiar to all of us. The door of death is very open in the piece—she is constantly interacting with death—and unfortunately, we’re all doing that too. [Originally] it felt more like it was in relation to the me-too movement: Can a woman be a reliable narrator of her own abuse, and what does it take for us to trust the narrator, and what does trauma do? It's still about all those things, but there's another way that it feels like it's right this minute.
How do you mean?
Maybe this will change next week. I don't know; we'll find out. But for me, right this minute, it's very much about the access that she had 20 years ago to a white-supremacist underworld that was very complex and powerful. It was a culture unto itself, that was supported in ways that she would never have been able to expect. She had access to this darkness, and she comes back and tells us the story of it. I know I personally spent a lot of time in the last year going, What just happened? How did that happen? Where and where has this whole culture been getting built? Who were all those guys on January 6th? And I feel like she was in the basement and she opened the door. She comes back and tells us the story of what's going on in the dark basement of…white people basically. [Laughs.] And that's the best we can do right now in some ways, right? The work we’re making now has to have something to do with demolition. It has something to do with demolishing the structures of the way the culture works. And demolition is really precise work. Sometimes you just blow shit up, but real demolition is quite precise: You gotta know the materials of the building, you gotta know how it was constructed, you gotta know when to pull the pin out and have the whole thing fall. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I feel like white people have a responsibility to shine the light, as clearly as we can, on what we live in—as part of the work of the demolition. This is the structure of the building; this is what's in the basement of the building. And when you find yourself in a unique position, like Lucas and his mother did, where they saw something…And she's baffled by it! It's not like she sees it clearly. She's just coming back and saying, “These are the clues that I had.” And I don't know if that's why she decided to tell this story, or why Lucas has decided to tell the story. I just know that that keeps coming to me as I revisit it now.
Beyond the technical difficulty, doing this particular piece so often in previous runs and now again seems like such a challenge to me. It's so much time to spend in the very disturbing space of this woman's narrative.
Yes. Yes, it is. [Laughs.]
One of the things I found compelling about Dana H. is the question you mentioned of her reliability as a narrator of her own abuse. Because there are moments in the story, at least as chosen by Lucas Hnath in putting it together, that are hard to understand as an audience, in terms of how people behave in it. One of the things that I find myself thinking about, more a year later, is my own response to it: how I fill in those blanks and what I assume about them.
I think that a lot of my work in the last few years—and will continue to be—is my relationship to that, too. Narrowing that gap for myself has been part of what I've had to do. There's information that you don't need to have about what happened and that I don't have about what happened, but there are also really weird blank spots that happen to somebody when they go through stuff like that, where they just literally can't remember: Did that happen before that, or did that happen after that? And then there's a lot of work of putting together an understanding of what must have been occurring in retrospect: When it was happening right in front of her, she didn't understand why the police would behave the way they behaved, and then gradually in retrospect she has tried to put together possible scenarios that explain it. It has to do with memory and how memory functions with trauma, but it also has to do with a tone we expect someone to have when they talk about something like that versus the tone that people actually have—the toughness that she's able to speak about it with.
Yes! Because of certain conventions of dramatic economy, when you watch Law & Order and people are talking about something, they kind of act it out as a monologue—they're feeling all the emotions and showing us everything, and that's not true of pretty much anyone I've actually spoken to about a past trauma.
Right. And as a person who has had to do those monologues on Law & Order [laughs] it sure is a relief! It's such a funny thing—the trope is so particular. The guys are supposed to be able to shoot someone with dead eyes and women are supposed to be able to burst into tears because they're telling the story of the terrible thing that happened to them. Those are our jobs as actors. It's always the job. And I'm like, This is the part and I know what they want—it's the money shot, you know? But I just get so allergic to it. So that's such a great way of putting it because yeah, I've been the one on the stand on Law & Order and I’m so happy not to be her right now!
How much contact have you had with the real Dana Higginbotham?
Not very much. I've met her twice, both times after she saw performances of it. There was a time when I was thinking I would go hang out with her for weeks but it never worked out. And then ultimately I was like, Well, let's embrace that and be on parallel paths, sort of looking over at each other. And I think that’s probably okay. I need to do my best to service the play without getting involved in how she’d like this story told. And there's something good about the simplicity of that.
When you say that you hear the interview differently every time, does that shape the way that you're performing it night to night? Or does the sheer discipline of the performance ensure that you are pretty much frozen, gesturally and emotionally, into doing it the way that you need to do in order to go forward with the show?
I don't know. Really. I don't really know, ’cause I'm certainly not going to watch a video of it. There are things that are set that are very simple things, like: Put on the glasses. Take off the glasses. Some of them are very specific and have to do with just little things like where my hands are. I drink one sip of water and I stand up one time. So those are rules, and the rules are pretty strict. [Laughs.] We did find ourselves making a pretty tight score, but inside of that I feel like there's a lot of leeway, a lot of softness in what I'm able to do. I don't know if you would experience it that way as an audience or not. But I feel like I have a lot of elbow room inside.
It’s so interesting to see you in this role because I associate you with a very loose and natural presence on stage, and this performance is necessarily so contained. But maybe that’s one reason it works so well—because you have so much of that already that it shows through even within the constraints? Sorry, I know that may be difficult to analyze as the actor in question.
No, I know what you're talking about. I do feel like it's always a double thing. Like, it's so precise that I have to have a very fluid spirit inside it. It has to have a hard edge and a soft inside, or maybe a soft edge and a hard inside—it shifts around, but it does need that tension that you're talking about. So I feel like part of my job is to keep my center very fluid inside it, but I really don't know how much difference that makes. It has a huge amount of secret information in it but I think I can say a lot of different things inside of it and nobody needs to know that it's very different for me today.
This show is moving to the Lyceum from the Vineyard Theatre, which is a much more intimate Off Broadway space just off Union Square. I know that you've done a couple of Broadway shows in the past, but I think of you as someone who thrives in small spaces.
One of my privileges is that I was not actually terrified to be poor. I mean, I didn't like being poor, but it wasn't completely crippling because I grew up a white middle-class person, so that privilege has made me be able to be an Off Broadway actor for most of my life, with some TV money but mostly living on very, very little—and kind of fine with that, because I'm so much more interested in more experimental theater and what can happen in a smaller situation. I don't think of myself as a Broadway baby at all. Broadway is so delicious for singers, but for the regular actors, it's kind of like, Whoa, this is big! So it's never been my heart's desire the way it is for some people. I didn't sign on to Dana H. being like, “I have a feeling this is going to be the one, kid!” [Laughs.] There's a kind of thrilling thing that Broadway does to us; if your pitching arm is strong, you're like, “Ah, finally! I can really pitch this part!” But Dana is so specific. It's held in its own energy field and that has always included the whole theater. It's been kind of uncanny how that's happened. In a normal world, I'd be like, Okay, get that pitch arm ready. But this is going to be about the courage to have the amount of restraint it takes in the context of being in a big old Broadway house.
In this case, the show will be sharing that house with another documentary-theater work, Is This A Room.
I'm so hopeful that this template of being able to produce two plays at the same time can work. You could have all kinds of different ways of putting that together. It's so humane for the performers and it may make it economically possible to do much more interesting work on Broadway. I feel like if we were in a time of plenty and economic health, this experiment would have a really good chance of being mind-blowingly successful. And I just hope that the fact that we're trying to do something so difficult in a time of so much difficulty won’t derail the whole idea. I don't want to be pessimistic, but I feel realistic about that.
It seems like your presence in the world of New York theater has grown in recent years as you've gotten older, which is not always what happens with actors.
Yeah, do I ever know! I feel really lucky that way, and I don't really know what to attribute it to. I mean, I do feel like there's a kind of crazy adolescent that I was well suited to play when I was young. And then in middle age, the parts are narrower, at least when I was doing it. And then as you get older, that eccentricity—the kinds of stories that are being told about your characters—starts to become revitalized. And I was lucky to be able to tell the two sides of that. The middle section I was a little ill-suited for: Like, really, I'm going to put this cardigan on? I don't know how to wear a cardigan! [Laughs.] That's a metaphor—I do know how, and wore some cardigans very well, I have to say! When I was sitting on that stand in Law & Order, I think I had a cardigan on!—but you know what I mean. So I was delighted at the writing that came my way in the last few years and felt like there was some great stuff to get my teeth into. And I'm not sure why, because I certainly didn't expect that. I thought there was just going to be diminishing returns.
Let’s talk about the past year a bit. One thing I’ve been asking people is whether you think you’ve taken away anything positive from it.
I loved being with my man. I feel like we were really good animals to each other, and we have probably developed a bigger tolerance for each other's moods because you just woke up in the morning some days and you just couldn't pretend that everything was fine. And then other days you'd be like, I'm strangely okay but you can't stop crying! What is this? So it was good to have that tested. What I really noticed was the pleasure I was taking in having more time: the way time kind of spread out and I didn't always have that fear-of-missing-out feeling. There was nothing to miss out on! And I do feel—and hopefully I can hold on to this—deeply appreciative of every contact with people and the making of art together that's happened since. I was not a happy Zoom actor. I sort of hated it a lot. For some people it did fill the void, but it made me realize that a lot of what I like about acting is being in the room and kind of following people. At least I feel like I'm following them, like I'm understanding what's in the room and riding it, and I could never get that vibe going on Zoom. And maybe having to go through that terrible darkness together made us able to let things sink in a little deeper, even the terrible things? And maybe we'll be able to carry that into the work—maybe, like I was saying, we'll be better demolition artists in the demolition derby that's about to come up? I just feel like this year is so not over. Every time you think, “Okay, let's begin the next phase!” we have to scuttle back into our little foxholes again.
I've had some very emotional responses to doing things again that, to some extent, I had become a little jaded about. That includes live theater, which is complicated as a critic, because you want to hold on to that appreciation but at the same time you don’t want to lose your standards.
No, I think in fact—I really do think—the standards have to be higher. The shambles that we're walking into are going to require that you lead with your most rigorous work and your most necessary work. I don't think we're going to be able to get away with anything less. It would feel like such a waste of time, and a waste of risk: When we’ve all got to go in a room together and put on masks and show our vaccination cards and have the courage to do that, you can't take it lightly as a responsibility when you're making stuff. I don't mean everything's gonna have to be serious or, you know, “important.” But I do think it's going to have to be lived-in and earned, because otherwise it just won't seem worth it to go. And theater is so vulnerable, you know, because theater can be so bad. Theater is just such a hard thing to make. There's so many things that can tip the thing off its axis. I love it so much, it's my life, but it can be so dumb. And I just don't think we're going to have much tolerance for the truly dumb. I’m not even talking about bad, just something that’s not necessary to make. Can we only do the things that are absolutely necessary to make? And what's going to define that? A lot of things could define it, but I'm interested in the idea of being willing to keep exposing things to light so that we can begin to understand the world we're actually living in, and begin to change it. I'm not saying I know what it is, I'm just saying that the work of constantly trying to see it—that seems like a thing that theater can do really, really well. And it can do it in a context where everybody's in the same room together going, “Ha! Right.” It can be so beautiful.
Dana H. begins performances on October 1, 2021. You can buy tickets here. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.